The titular spook from Sam Greenlee’s 1969 novel, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, is a double agent. The novel’s protagonist, Dan Freeman, is the first Black officer in the history of the CIA, and to make up for being a token agent of the state, he takes his newly acquired intel and tactical skills to his community in Chicago to train up its working-class Black youth as freedom fighters. The 1973* film adaptation, directed by Ivan Dixon, was subsequently yanked from theaters for its radical content — or, in the words of cinema scholar Samantha N. Sheppard, for the way it “dramatizes, as revolutionary, the theme of African American freedom and equality being gained through a political consciousness of armed resistance.” In February, FX announced a pilot order for a Lee Daniels Spook TV series, which is now in production, with Insecure’s Y’lan Noel and MacGyver’s Lucas Till set to star. That same month, Amazon announced an upcoming Marcus Garvey biopic, with Winston Duke playing the activist, that vows to focus on the Hoover-sanctioned informant who infiltrated Garvey’s organization. They’re two entries in a run of recent projects — including the movies Judas and the Black Messiah and The United States vs. Billie Holiday as well as the FX series Snowfall, which has been renewed for its fifth season — that represent a growing interest in Black people enmeshed in the state’s web of surveillance.
Yet unlike Greenlee’s infamous character, a man with hidden ties to his community who intends to use his unprecedented government access for liberation, this current crop of fictional and dramatized Black informants rarely espouse those sorts of ulterior motives. What we’ve typically seen instead are Black informants who have served as proxies for state power — wolves in sheep’s clothing within the narratives of fictional and real-life Black revolutionary figures. Judas, a biopic of Illinois Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton (whom Daniel Kaluuya won an Oscar for portraying), largely follows the story of Bill O’Neal, the FBI collaborator who facilitated Hampton’s assassination. In Billie Holiday, federal agent and love interest Jimmy Fletcher is the “entry point into Holiday’s world.” Though the inclusion of these informant figures generates suspense and tension, the characters have been one-note — the informant, whether persuaded by the state or coerced, is presented as though only cowardice, greed, and/or self-righteousness could explain their actions. These films fail to name the well from which their informant’s apathy springs or the conditions under which their betrayals are bred — and in so doing, the films sabotage whatever critiques they seek to make of state power, laundering its actions through stories of intraracial disloyalty.
As a narrative device, the Black informant is a crucial interlocutor. Through these characters, audiences are invited to see what the revolutionaries in these stories can’t: the inner workings of the system stacked against them. In Judas and the Black Messiah, LaKeith Stanfield’s O’Neal introduces us to the network of agents dedicated to suppressing the Black Panther Party. Though the film centers O’Neal, it neglects to fully contextualize his connection to Hampton’s murder. For starters, the biblical framing of O’Neal as the conflicted Judas to Hampton’s Black Messiah falls apart upon close inspection. “I knew nothing of the Black Panther Party,” O’Neal once told the documentary series Eyes on the Prize. “In fact, the day I joined, I was pretty sure it was just another gang, unlike, not unlike the Blackstone Rangers, or, or the Cobras or something. I had no idea of anything about their politics.” He went on to say that, though he had respect for Hampton, he had no allegiance to the Panthers as an organization, even after the chairman’s death. One might ask then, how a man without any allegiance to Hampton is cast as his disciple. The answer lies in the director’s imagination of the informant as a figure whose intrigue outweighs the need for narrative integrity.
To explain why his film, which vows to explore the life of Fred Hampton, dedicates far more time to an agent of his assassination, Judas director Shaka King told The Atlantic that “Fred Hampton came into this world fully realized. He knew what he was doing at a very young age. Whereas William O’Neal is in a conflict; he’s confused. And that’s always going to make for a more interesting protagonist,” he asserted. (Casting a 29-year-old Stanfield to portray O’Neal, who was only 17 when he was coerced by the FBI, underplays why O’Neal may not have been “fully realized” yet — the government often took advantage of the vulnerable to disrupt civil-rights organizing.) In truth, conflict and confusion are the ingredients of war, neither belonging to the informant alone. The film hints at the idea that there were other finks afoot — one of them, “fleeing” a murder rap, goes from Panther chapter to Panther chapter providing a pretext for government raids — but does not linger on the atmosphere of surveillance. After all, as the film’s Panthers proclaim, “What’s a rat to a big black jungle cat?” As it turns out, the “rat” is low-hanging fruit. In real life, O’Neal himself believed he was not all that important to his handler, Roy Mitchell (played in the film by Jesse Plemons): “There was very little information that I gave him that he seemed surprised of,” O’Neal told Eyes on the Prize. “I just assumed the FBI is not the FBI for nothing, you know?” The film’s shallow fixation on O’Neal does a disservice not only to his own tragic history but also to the reality of the powers Hampton was up against.
Adding romance to its informant plot, The United States vs. Billie Holiday renders the legacy of Lady Day, portrayed by singer Andra Day, in intimate relation to Jimmy Fletcher, an FBI agent played by Trevante Rhodes who is tasked with ending the musician’s career, as her anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” threatens to raise the collective consciousness of oppressed Black Americans and complicit white Americans alike. Masquerading as a soldier, Fletcher enters Holiday’s life on behalf of a government that encourages him to become the artist’s confidant. Fletcher ironically explains his behavior in terms of community responsibility: It’s actually drugs and drug users like Holiday that threaten the future of Black people, not violent subjugation. Throughout the film, Fletcher manipulates others in order to complete the tasks assigned to him by white agents of greater authority. To Fletcher’s surprise, he ends up falling for Holiday as he seeks to destroy her. But when he tries to undo the damage he has caused and admits that Holiday has been framed, the FBI only tightens its leash.
Text cards at the end of the film suggest that Fletcher regretted his government work until the day he died, but there is precious little investigation into how someone with the purported desire to “protect” his community could become a tool for its destruction. Daniels, the Billie Holiday director, has said the movie was inspired by a wider-sweeping book about the war on drugs, but he and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks decided to home in on Fletcher’s entanglement with Holiday because he “wanted to just get a taste of the government,” he told United Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Hemispheres. “I also felt like the U.S. government was embodied in Jimmy Fletcher because he was one of the first Black federal agents hired to take Billie down. I mean, you can’t make it up.”
Even the ending of 2019’s Queen & Slim hinges on the betrayal of an unnamed Black snitch (Bertrand E. Boyd II), who gets even less backstory than Fletcher. He shows up just to lead the film’s imperiled young couple, folk heroes on the run for killing a police officer who shot Queen during a traffic stop, directly to the authorities so that he can acquire the robust bounty on their heads. In one of the movie’s final shots, audiences watch him count his blood money after Queen and Slim’s deaths, his gold grill shining through a knowing smirk. When asked about the traitorous twist at the end of her film during a screening, Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas explained that “he’s thinking of himself as an individual and has sold out the community in order for his own individual growth.” In her words, the snitch is a “victim of capitalism,” a figure so consumed by his desperation for money that he has no interest in integrity or racial allegiance. Despite this investment in exploring how the marginalized accrue power, the film interestingly opts to redeem a Black cop who looks the other way as Queen and Slim try to evade the police, writing him as an ally to the troubled duo, while taking a working-class Black man to task for his pathologized selfishness.
The assumptions that undergird these explanations of the informants’ inclusion highlight the problem with how the Black informant is imagined within popular media. By situating them as crucial antagonists within narratives of Black radical figures both fictional and historical, these films make a critical trade-off, choosing to highlight individuals who colluded with the state (be they coerced or incentivized) because it’s so much harder to capture the government’s seemingly endless capacity for terror. This decision requires that each film ask its audiences to find closure, not in the dismantling or repudiation of any particular state systems of power but in the ire we might direct toward the only arm of the state denied the protections of anonymity: lowly snitches and stooges. By treating the informant as a stand-in for the state, these films don’t offer new insights into state violence or the vulnerabilities it must foster to secure its informant class. Rather, they flatten both their revolutionary heroes and their counterrevolutionary villains. It’s a narrative betrayal of both the Black informant and their Black victims.
But on TV, we find an example of how, across the span of several seasons, these sorts of narratives unfold in more complex and compelling ways. In the FX drama Snowfall, which tells the story of the Black 20-something drug kingpin Franklin Saint (Damson Idris), we see the generational and transnational cost of state collaboration. Selling crack on the state’s behalf — Franklin’s supplier is a CIA agent (Carter Hudson) — the young man exploits his Black South Central Los Angeles community and ultimately helps that government fund anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua. Despite the show’s flair for the dramatic (read gratuitous posturing and gun violence), Snowfall, which just wrapped up its fourth season, provides far more intricate storytelling about the figure of the Black informant through the arc of Franklin’s father, Alton (Kevin Carroll). A Black Panther driven to alcoholism after killing his own cousin for working with the FBI, Alton is a living reminder of the government’s threat to liberatory community organizing. After falling from grace in the wake of his cousin’s murder and the dissolution of the Black Panther Party, Alton winds up homeless and destitute. Years later, he gets back on his feet, revives his marriage to Franklin’s mother, Cissy (Michael Hyatt), and lands himself a job at Edgewood Shelter: a homeless shelter and community center that, unbeknownst to him at the time, is funded by his son’s CIA-backed drug money.
When a reporter starts digging into the shelter in the show’s most recent season, her findings threaten to sow chaos. And just like that, a man who once killed for collusion finds himself betraying his own in the name of salvation. Hoping to save his family, Alton appears on live radio to reveal the state’s hand in the drug epidemic facing his community as well as the alias of Franklin’s government contact. In a last-ditch effort to save themselves from the state’s retaliation, Cissy and Alton promise not to spread state secrets. For their silence, the couple are permitted to flee for Cuba, where they vow not to cause more trouble. And yet in the season-four finale, we witness Alton in his hideaway reading The Spook Who Sat by the Door as trouble finds him. Just as Cissy and Alton are settling into their new home, Franklin’s handler pays them a visit. Alton is denied even the possibility of escape — his knowledge of the government’s wrongdoing makes even his individual liberation a liability. Though intel arms the state, it proves futile in one man’s fight against the state’s overwhelming authority.
*This article originally included an incorrect year of release. We regret the error.